Day 199: “Revolution 9”

When was it recorded?   May 30 and Jun. 6-21 1968

When was it first released, and on which album?   Nov. 22, 1968 on “The Beatles”

Who wrote it?   Lennon (with noteworthy contribution from Harrison and Ono)

Have I heard this song before?   Yes

What my research dug up:

Ah, “Revolution 9,” strange light of my life. Alan Pollack actually argues in his notes that it’s not a song (not by any standard dictionary definition, certainly). I tend to have the same thought process listening to it as do driving through a tunnel carved through a mountain — “Oh God, this could come crashing down on me at an second, I mean, it’s kind of cool, but is it structurally sound, oh neat, oh wait, oh no, I can’t see the light at the end, it has to be there! Oh, I’m through.”

According to John, he was “trying to paint a picture of a revolution using sound” (Wikipedia).

 “‘Revolution 9’ was an unconscious picture of what I actually think will happen when it happens; just like a drawing of a revolution. All the thing was made with loops. I had about 30 loops going, fed them onto one basic track. I was getting classical tapes, going upstairs and chopping them up, making it backwards and things like that, to get the sound effects. One thing was an engineer’s testing voice saying, ‘This is EMI test series number nine.’ I just cut up whatever he said and I’d number nine it. Nine turned out to be my birthday and my lucky number and everything. I didn’t realize it: it was just so funny the voice saying, ‘number nine;’ it was like a joke, bringing number nine into it all the time, that’s all it was.” —John Lennon (Rolling Stone, 1970)

According to my sources, the final mix includes at least 45 sound sources. You can find mostly complete lists on Wikipedia and the Beatles Bible pages for “Revolution 9.”

While inspired by composers of the absurd Edgard Varèse and Karlheinz Stockhausen, Yoko Ono was probably the largest influence on the track’s avant-garde-ness. She and John recorded their own album “Unfinished Music No.1: Two Virgins” prior to “Revolution 9.” According to Wikipedia, “Ono attended the recording sessions and helped Lennon select which tape loops to use.”

The longest song ever officially released by the Beatles, “Revolution 9” began life May 30 as part of “Revolution,” which I mentioned yesterday. Quoth Wikipedia, “Lennon soon decided to make the first part of the recording into a conventional Beatles’ song, ‘Revolution 1,’ while using the last six minutes as the basis for a separate track, ‘Revolution 9.’ He began preparing additional sound effects and tape loops: some newly recorded in the studio, at home and from the studio archives. The work culminated on 20 June, with Lennon performing a live mix from tape loops running on machines in all three studios at Abbey Road. Additional prose was overdubbed by Lennon and Harrison.”

According to the Beatles Bible, “The track used Abbey Road’s STEED – single tape echo and echo delay – reverb system. During the live mix the delay ran out, and at 5’11” the sound of the tape being rewound can be heard.” I thought that was interesting.

More overdubs were added June 21, with the song completed the next day. It was actually edited down from 9:05 to 8:12 in the process.

Throughout all this, Paul had been out of the country. When he came back and heard the song he was, quote Wikipedia, “unimpressed.” That’s probably putting it mildly (though he had been experimenting with his own, er, experimental tracks). He reportedly asked John to drop the track from the White Album, but John won this round.

“‘Revolution 9’ is an embarrassment that stands like a black hole at the end of the White Album, sucking up whatever energy and interest remain after the preceding ninety minutes of music. It is a track that neither invites nor rewards close attention…” — Jonathan Gould, Can’t Buy Me Love

As you can infer from that quote, most critics hated “Revolution 9.” There are some hilarious quotes on Wikipedia that I can’t do justice. At least Jann Wenner said it was “beautifully organized.” Pollack, however, has a view of the bigger picture.

“John’s relevant axiom reads: ‘There’s nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be.’ You can derive, as if by corollary, the notion that the White Album would not be improved by the omission of ‘Revolution #9’ but rather would be somehow lacking something essential in that case; similarly, you would hear this track very differently if it was completely by someone other than the Beatles, or had been released by them as an independent single.” – Alan Pollack, “Notes on ‘Revolution #9’”




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